When local fashion historians look back at 2014, those on the retail front will call it the year of Uniqlo — the Japanese clothing brand whose inexpensive but well-made, skinny, rainbow-colored basics have finally found their way to the Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey area, after having initially opened in Tokyo in the 80s.
Built to compete with fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Forever 21, Uniqlo’s takeover of the area started in the King of Prussia Mall during the spring. Yet dotted throughout the year have been pronouncements of upcoming store locations, now focused on late September/early October openings at the Willow Grove Mall, the Cherry Hill Mall, and a 49,000 square-foot, glass front Uniqlo flagship store in Downtown Philly at 1608 Chestnut where both Filene’s Basement and the Art Institute once stood (Owner Fast Retailing Inc. also owns Theory, which added a Walnut Street outpost in 2013).
Blame this thrust forward on the focus of Uniqlo’s U.S. division and its CEO Larry Meyer, a corporate-culture chieftain who spent time at Pepsi, Toys R Us, and Forever 21.
“I believe that your life is about learning, so I picked up things every step of the way,” said Meyer from his office in Manhattan.
“My job is about having the sense as to where things are going — that corporate culture is never about any one individual, but rather the team, that you’re always there to serve the customer, and to lead from the middle so that everything runs like a finely tuned car,” he added, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
Oh, one other thing. Meyer digs the clothes that Uniqlo makes. “I absolutely love the product, and that we make sure it's fashionable, yes, but that it’s functional and serves a higher purpose.”
Meyer thinks it’s great that Uniqlo creates comfort and style inexpensively — not the fast fashion that Uniqlo is, in his mind, unfairly lumped in with. “I love that we’re creating warm clothes whose material gets lighter every year, and classical fashion pieces like making Moreno sweaters washable.”
Fast fashion is here today, gone tomorrow. “That’s not Uniqlo. The product speaks for itself once you try it.” And now, Meyer wants the Philadelphia region to know Uniqlo big time. Uniqlo’s decision to focus four stores within the Pennsylvania/Jersey market all at once comes down to what Meyer sees as each being quality locations with diverse audiences and a sense of convenience in getting to all of the Uniqlos. The more is not just merrier: It’s about making yourself known with the greatest impact. “There’s more exposure by being in Philly and around Philly all at once. That’s the best way to announce our presence.”
Meyer, a hands-on CEO,, made personal treks through Downtown Philly to find the right spot for Uniqlo’s flagship location, honing in immediately on the heavily trafficked Walnut and Chestnut shopping district between 15th and 18th streets.
“I love the bones on the building at 1608, since it used to be an old department store," he said. " Downtown flagship locations are the most fun for us, and that store — though it will share elements with King of Prussia and Willow Grove — will simply be different due its size and structure. We have the ability to have our own face on the street and be creative with the multiple floors’ separate spaces.”
Though he’s anxious to re-launch King of Prussia for Uniqlo’s fall fashions — “Moreno sweater for 39 bucks, parkas you can pull out of bag” — and start the party in Philadelphia, Cherry Hill and Willow Grove, Meyer wants local audiences to know one thing: he thinks our area and his product line is a lot alike “Philly’s both a modern town and a classic city. The area is reliable, functional, and forward. Your populace and our products should be a good match.”